At age 13, Sonya Carson, my mother, married a man she felt would be a great husband and the ideal father to their children. He wasn't. After giving birth to two sons, she learned he was a bigamist. Devastated, my mother quickly abandoned him and set out on her own to raise two sons - and well that she did.
It was mandatory that Curtis and I read books and submit written book reports on a weekly basis. We never knew that our mother had only a third-grade education, and it never stopped her from demanding the best from us. No matter how difficult the struggle, my mother never allowed us to make excuses instead of learning, being role models of discipline and showing respect in the classroom and at home. She worked two to three jobs to take care of necessities. Her jobs took her into the houses of wealthy people, and she would tell us how they behaved that we might learn from them.
Curtis and I may have been raised most of our lives without a father, but I remember, when I was 8, asking my mother why Dad was gone, why he couldn't come back, and if it was my fault somehow that he had left. She reassured me that it wasn't, and that it was no reflection on me or my brother. I can only thank God that we turned out as well as we did, because he, the heavenly father, replaced our biological father who was gone.
Because of the missing father in my life, I have always tried extra hard to be a good father to my children, and to make time for my family despite my demanding schedule as a pediatric neurosurgeon. My wife, Candy, and I have been married for over 32 years. My sons Murray, a mechanical engineer, and B.J., a national sales manager, both graduated from college, and Rhoeyce, the youngest, graduates this month.
Now, you may ask yourself, "How is it that all of his sons are accomplished?" While planning and preparing to become parents, Candy and I discussed how we wanted to raise our children. We decided to create traditions for our family. It was important to us that we ate together, worshiped together, traveled and shared our struggles together. During meal time, we introduced topics that reflected the values we wanted to pass on to our children to help them achieve in life. Also in our travels, we pointed out "real life" situations that reinforced our values and tried to maximize the teaching moment for our sons.
Once, while we were vacationing in New Orleans, a beggar approached us saying that he was hungry and hadn't eaten for days. He asked for money to buy food. We had a bag of groceries in the car with us and we offered them to the man. He refused and insisted on us giving him money - at which point we bid him good day. We used that opportunity to talk with our sons about the importance of compassion and pointed out that this man wanted money for reasons other than for food. It was also a chance to talk about education and its role in preparing them for the future so they would not end up like the beggar.
This was a particularly important theme for me because I recognized that my children were growing up in affluent circumstances and they could easily - mistakenly - conclude that life for them would be easy and they didn't need to work as hard. We knew of many affluent families whose children had made poor choices and could never find success in their lives. And we used their examples to reinforce to our children what can happen, regardless of your social and economic status, if you don't work hard and exercise sound judgment and wisdom.
Despite the rigors of my surgical practice, I tried not to bring my work home with me. Instead, I made the time to play games with the boys, or we would watch movies and find other fun activities to do together. To this day, we still enjoy doing fun things as a family. There are always going to be things that demand our time and attention, but as a physician I have learned that imbalance breeds more imbalance and eventually leads to disease.
My mother has lived with us for 17 years now, and I can't emphasize enough the positive influence she has had on our family. Too often we overlook the impact that extended family, particularly grandparents, have on the growth and maturation of children and parents. Many of us are too ready to disregard the older generation and their advice. They may not be as well versed in the latest technology, but in most cases they have tremendous love for their grandchildren and great-grand children and share it. They reinforce traditional family values and a sense of history. It is extraordinarily important for young people to learn life values from grandparents, family friends and respected members of the community, and for parents to pay close attention to their children's friends.
None of us has the perfect prescription for how to raise a successful family, or what a perfect family looks like. But the focus should be on family, sacrifice, discipline, positive role modeling and a willingness to stick to traditional values.
Dr. Benjamin Carson is director of pediatric neurosurgery for Johns Hopkins Medicine and the author of books including "Gifted Hands." His e-mail is email@example.com.